- Spatializing Illness:Embodied Deafness in Teresa de Cartagena's Arboleda de los enfermos
Teresa de Cartagena's Arboleda de los enfermos (written c. 1475, as Seidenspinner-Núñez and Kim have recently suggested) explores physical disability from the subjective point of view of the sufferer.1 Arboleda is one of the earliest texts by a woman writer in the Spanish Middle Ages.2 In her first-person account the author attempts to give meaning to her deafness by translating it into spatial imagery. This article explores how the spatializing of Cartagena's illness is a metaphorical embodying process that both deepens the author's self-awareness and connects her with what she perceives as a [End Page 61] community of sufferers. I follow Pamela Moss's and Isabel Dyck's concept of embodiment as referring to
those lived spaces where bodies are located conceptually and corporeally, metaphorically and concretely, discursively and materially . . . This means being simultaneously part of bodily forms and their social constructions. Embodiment involves not only the body as a surface upon which the society inscribes or "marks" a body so that it can be read in a culturally intelligible way, but also the activity of body self-inscription which can resist some cultural marks and create (perhaps) new ones, or what can be called "autonomous" representations.(232)
This process of self-inscription closely resembles Cartagena's strategy of redefining deafness through her usage of embodied metaphors. I argue that her introspective, embodied approach not only serves as an efficacious palliative for the negative effects of her illness, but more importantly, it allows her to reflect upon the concepts of illness and health themselves.
Cartagena achieves her remedy through two solitary activities, reading and writing, both of which are transformed through the prism of embodied metaphors. The objectives of this rhetorical and identity-forming strategy are multiple; in addition to conferring meaning upon what would otherwise be senseless suffering, Cartagena attempts to shore up her own authority to speak on theological matters despite –or rather precisely because of– her status as a sufferer and a woman, thus overturning her initially inferior position and transforming it into a mark of superiority over her detractors. Cartagena's embodiment of deafness allows her to create a private, silent space from which she can first build and strengthen a self free from the impurity of society, and then into which to invite other sufferers in a larger grove or arboleda – a community of newfound spiritual health. From an in-depth exploration of the embodiment of physical disability Cartagena moves to a position of moral authority and back to a bodiless state of spiritual health.
Arboleda contains several autobiographical traits and may be considered both a didactic-religious treatise and a consolation, a very popular genre in fifteenth-century Castile. Cartagena indicates at the beginning of the text that one of her objectives is to produce a work that would console her and [End Page 62] other sufferers. This affirmation, together with a direct reference to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy,3 has prompted critics to classify Arboleda as an example of the consolation genre.4
While it is true, as Encarnación Juárez reminds us, that the impact of Cartagena's illness has been little analyzed (132), critics like Alan Deyermond argue that deafness is a fundamental element in her writing: "This is, of course, the subject matter of the Arboleda, and I believe that it is also the secret of her creativity" ("El convento de las dolençias" 28). But Deyermond's article is essentially a short introduction to Cartagena's Arboleda which serves to "explain why [he] find[s] her work both interesting and moving" (20). Deyermond states that illness and "creativity" are linked without explaining how or studying its specificity in Cartagena's text.
Joan Cammarata also highlights the impact of deafness for Cartagena's life and work: "Her corporal deafness penetrates her intellectual and spiritual life, her identity and self-image, and her relations with others" (39). However, as in Deyermond's articles, her statement is not followed by an examination of Cartagena's embodied metaphors, which I argue here are essential for understanding...